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Building rural entrepreneur clusters

Growing rural entrepreneurs can be a decidedly dicey business, especially in agriculture.  Not only do you contend with finding viable business ideas and overcoming funding challenges, but you also have to deal with issues associated with getting products to hungry market.  Enter the Vermont model.

North Loup Popcorn Days

North Loup Popcorn Days, an agri-entrepreneurial dream

Vermont offers a unique way to defer some of the risk associated in agri-entrepreneur markets that we in Ord and Valley County could certainly learn from.  It certainly provides tangible opportunities that small family farmers in the Loup Valley can learn from in terms of diversification and profitability.  The Daily Yonder reports:

“Clusters are perhaps even more valuable to the economy in rural America than in cities whose economies are more diversified.  The raw numbers in rural America may be smaller and clusters more difficult to identify, but the distinctive nature of rural economies can be tapped to generate wealth…This concentration, or cluster, of food processing builds on itself. The employment gains in all of Vermont’s agricultural and food sectors have outpaced that of the nation. That shows the power of clusters. Concentrations of businesses are more competitive than businesses standing alone. This is true in rural and urban areas alike.”

It seems to me that in Nebraska, those networks are completely absent with exception to the small rural communities that ring Lincoln and provide a tremendous bounty for Lincoln’s growing farmer’s market scene.  It think it’s a shame we don’t have better networks in our rural communities that enhance these relationships.

Furthermore, The Yonder also reports that economic development policy shouldn’t exclude farming and agriculture as one of the many spokes in the wheel:

“The Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Council’s 2003 report recommended that “economic development and other public policies should recognize not just the value of ‘farm gate’ production but also the indirect value of agriculture to tourism.” The state is home to some two dozen food festivals. Tourists come to buy Vermont’s cheese and maple syrup or to visit Shelbourne Farms.”

I couldn’t agree more with this.  Too long, economic development policy had centered on smoke-stack chasing, and honestly for a few good intentions.  Those economic efforts did insulate the local economic structure from the ups and downs of the farm economy and generated investment and job creation.  Ultimately as a policy, however, I believe it has failed rural communities.  In Nebraska, smokestack chasing failed to give most rural communities the tools necessary to keep their population AND economy growing over the long term.

A new process should be considered, one that includes creating agri-entrepreneurs as primary economic development engines in rural Nebraska.  In Nebraska, our farms are still the primary export agent for *every single Nebraska community* including Omaha.

Renewable energy is an essential component to grooming viable rural entrepreneurship clusters, including biofuels.   I’ve always said the farm economy is ripe for entrepreneurial innovation.  What I see that is missing in rural communities is viable entrepreneur networks that link opportunity to markets, and a galvanizing force that can help local agri-entrepreneurs cluster as a tightly knit unit.  As Vermont has show and national markets are now starting to dictate, clusters can help get localized premium products to markets.

WheatI’ve also said that if we truly want to address issues of depopulation in rural Nebraska, we need to address the crisis of the ever-shrinking population on the farm.  It seems like Vermont has placed that opportunity squarely into the hands of the high schools and community colleges to meet those ends:

“Vermont has the opportunity to become a new national model for supporting for a new form of agricultural economy by expanding the curriculum of high schools and community colleges to include the state’s new agricultural economy.”

If you’re interested in learning more about this idea, don’t hesitate to let us know.  Who knows, a conversation is a good place to kick this off.  Feel free to comment below and offer your input.  Until then, back to the usual business of stirring the pot!

One Response to “Building rural entrepreneur clusters”

  1. Lee Myers Says:

    Around Wisner and Cuming County, Nebraska, there’s a cluster of beef feeding that started just as Caleb described — but back in the first half of last century. Then, when a dominant practice gets started in a strong cluster, it is very difficult to attack that dominant practice from within — but that’s just where innovation could start best. But I had a fruitless 5-year run at doing that in beef production.

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